History of Automotive Safety Shows Lawsuits Play Important Regulatory Role

By March 18, 2010July 18th, 2019Auto Accidents, Product Liability

As a St. Louis automotive product liability lawyer, I was interested in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times that said lawsuits have spurred some of the most important automotive safety innovations that exist. Many of us are thinking about auto safety lawsuits, given the recent Toyota recalls. But lawsuits against automakers are not new at all. As far back as 1916, a New York man sued Buick when a defective rear wheel on his car caused an accident that lacerated his eye and broke his wrist. In the 1916 case, the New York Court of Appeals established an important legal precedent by ruling that automakers have a “duty of care” to ensure that their products are safe. Their award to the plaintiff showed that negligence would be punished.
Since then, legal and auto safety experts agree, lawsuits over automakers’ duty of care have pushed car companies to develop better and better safety technologies. For example, designs for steering columns and dashboards had to be altered so that they would absorb impact. This was also true for other design elements that could cause injury during crashes, like gear shifts that impaled drivers or shattered glass that lacerated occupants. All of these improvements came after a 1968 ruling that held an automaker responsible for injuries suffered in a collision — even if the design features in question did not actually cause the crash. That is, this ruling allowed injured motorists to sue over features that worsened an accident, creating injuries that might otherwise never have existed.
Consumers who sued automakers over their unsafe vehicles or parts have not just recovered financial damages. They also helped to send automakers a message that they could not ignore product safety and get away with it. An especially important lawsuit, Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., concerned Ford’s liability in the Ford Pinto’s gas tank’s propensity to explode rear-end collisions. Evidence showed that Ford was aware that the gas tanks were defective and prone to explosion, and that repair of the problem would have cost about $11 per car. Yet Ford declined to recall the Pinto. In light of this evidence, a California appeals court ordered Ford to pay victims of these explosions $125 million in punitive damages, later reduced to $3.5 million. As a Missouri automotive defect attorney, I am glad that the courts provide this avenue for holding negligent companies responsible for the damage they do.
The article goes on to cite many more examples of automakers’ reluctance to address safety problems with their products over the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first with Toyota’s current problems. As a southern Illinois defective car parts attorney, I’m disappointed that some companies continue to place convenience and higher profits over customers’ health and lives. History has shown that this problem will not go away on its own. Drivers who have been hurt because of flaws in their vehicle’s design can work with an experienced products liability attorney to determine whether the automaker is liable.

If you have been hurt in an automobile accident and suspect that the vehicle’s design may have contributed to your injuries, please contact Carey, Danis & Lowe for a free consultation. Call us toll-free at 1-877-678-3400 or contact us through our Web site.